What the Hell Was That? – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

With the past year at a close, the next few weeks present to us the season in which the last year was all leading up to; awards season.  One thing that is commonplace pretty much every year is the scramble to get in last minute consideration before the deadline of the year’s end cuts off prevents any more inclusion.   In these final weeks of December, the goal is very clear from all contenders; get the most attention that you can.  As accolades begin to pile up from various year end awards, this is when the attention from the Film Academy is at it’s highest, and the potential of making their shortlist of nominees becomes even higher.  Some movies have better chances than others because they appeal to the general tastes of the Academy’s voting body, which can be frustratingly predictable at times.  These movies are what we generally know as “Oscar Bait,” which are films that are specifically manufactured to appeal solely to the people within the industry who vote for the Academy Awards.  And given the insular, sometimes out of touch voting body of the Academy, these movies tend to always end up being small dramas that tackle some social issue or features a performance where the actor goes through some body transformation that makes them(how to put this lightly) less glamorous.  Essentially, they are movies that are pandering to a specific group of elitists, and typically because of that, the movies have limited appeal and even smaller box office grosses.  And you wonder why the Academy Awards has a problem with popularity.  Oscar Bait movies are not all bad; some are even great and deserving of their honors.  But, when they are bad, they become infuriatingly so, because their very pandering nature exposes the cynicism behind their creation and the greedy intentions of their producers.  And, depending on the type of story and issue that the movie is tackling, it can become downright offensive.

A couple years back, I made a top ten list of failed Oscar Bait movies, and what ended up topping my list was Micahel Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  My criteria for the list called for the top movie to be the one that crashed hardest in it’s attempts to win an Oscar, and Heaven’s Gate is notorious for being an Oscar Bait movie that bankrupted it’s studio (United Artists) and destroyed it’s director’s reputation.  But, here’s the thing, Heaven’s Gate is not a terrible movie.  In fact, it’s gone through a critical reevalution in the last few years thanks to a stellar restoration and a Criterion Collection release, helping to soften it’s notorious reputation.  If you want to look at the worst ever Oscar Bait movie, you only need to look at my #2 on that same list; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  The Stephen Daldry directed feature is pretty much the textbook example of a bad Oscar Bait movie.  It’s pandering, it’s obnoxiously self-indulgent, it’s enormously shallow and insincere, and worst of all, exploitative.  And yet, somehow, it managed to do what Heaven’s Gate could not; get a Best Picture nomination.  I guess that doesn’t make it a failed Oscar Bait movie, because it at least got itself a place at the table, but really, at what cost?  Extremely Loud is personally my most hated of Oscar baiting movies, which are the ones that use it’s very important subject matter to do nothing other than gain the attention of Oscar voters.  And here’s the more insidious thing about it; it doesn’t just stick to one grim subject matter either.  We get the entire buffet in one movie.  We get the Holocaust, mental disorders, racism, and the Twin Tower attacks of 9/11 all in this mess of a movie.  Had they thrown a person dying from AIDS the movie would have hit an Oscar BINGO (thankfully the movie never went that far).  But what we did get presented us with probably the most grossly transparent attempt at baiting the Academy for an Oscar, and sadly the industry took a nibble before rightfully throwing this one out.

To understand why a movie like this came to be in the first place, you have to consider the period in which it was made.  The movie came to theaters just after the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack; a point in time after the tragedy when the industry felt it was appropriate to begin dramatizing the event on film.  Before this, only two other films had tackled the tragedy; Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, both from 2006.  Both tackled the event head on, with true life stories and managed to gain varying degrees of success among critics.  But, Extremely Loud took a different approach to the event; using it as a backdrop to their own fictional story.  Many films do that of course, but there is a purpose most of the time to those that choose to set their story that way.  Titanic (1997) of course used a Romeo and Juliet style love story to place a dramatic connection for the audience in the midst of all the true events of the tragedy.  9/11 is a trickier event to tackle because of the widespread ramifications that the event had on the world at large; including becoming a hot button political issue, even today.  Extremely Loud makes the aftermath of the terror attack part of it’s own narrative, primarily with regards to the trauma that the city of New York went through.  Some movies could tackle that kind of narrative effectively, without ever having to resort to recreating the event itself.  Spike Lee managed to to that effectively in his film 25th Hour (2002), which was made a mere year after the attack, and told the story of the people still feeling the pain of loss.  The way that worked is because the movie was about the longer lasting effects of trauma on people, and how that creates problems down the road itself.  Extremely Loud on the other hand not only wants to use the 9/11 terror attacks as a factor in it’s movie, but it even seems to expose old wounds that many had hoped would be healed with time.

Here’s where we get to the most controversial aspect of the movie, and a prime example of where movies that pander to an a certain kind of audience ends up crossing the line.  In various parts of the movie, the 9/11 attacks are dramatized; not particularly outrageous in itself, except the filmmakers decided to do so with a misguided artistic flair.   The character played by Tom Hanks in the movie, Thomas Schell, is a victim of the terror attack, with the movie focused on the coping with grief that his remaining family goes through afterwards.  At several points, Thomas’ son Oskar (which is in no way another pandering move, I say in a sarcastic tone) has nightmarish flashes of imagination where he sees his father falling from the building like one of the horrifying videos of jumpers captured on that day.  These moments take this tragic aspect of the tragedy and dramatizes it in a way that feels extremely exploitative.  The scenes don’t just recreate the falling, they stylize it.  The opening credits in fact play over a cringe-inducing slow motion shot of Tom Hanks falling in mid air.  This is not the kind of thing that you use visual poetry on.  To make matters worse, there is no need in the narrative whatsoever for these moments to happen.  It just comes at you as a slap to the face reminding you of what a tragedy 9/11 was.  It’s the same kind of exploitative tactic that you see when a documentary or narrative film suddenly splices in footage of the towers collapsing, knowing the power that those terrifying images still have.  The images of 9/11 are profound in their scale of cataclysm, but to take those and offer up an artistic spin like the one in this movie almost feels like it’s intentionally wanting people to feel the pain of the events again.  It’s like the movie doesn’t care what feeling it’s audience has toward the event; it just knows that there is power in the images that we saw from that day, and it wants to use it to elevate it’s own sense of importance.

That’s where the movie especially rubs people the wrong way, with it’s emphasis on it’s own importance.  The movie wants you to follow these characters around and learn about their struggles, but here’s the problem; the struggles carry more importance that the characters themselves.  Every character is a pastiche of your typical tragic backstory individual that usually populates movies that carry some importance.  Most of the time, we accept a character or two that has a personal tragedy that motivates their existence within a narrative; but not when the entire movie is populated with them.  The book on which this movie is based, written by Jonathan Safran Foer, probably addresses each individual problem with all the characters with more nuance, since novels allow more time and introspection to establish each character’s purpose in the story (I can’t judge for certain because I haven’t read it).  The movie adaptation, done by the usually reliable Eric Roth, dispenses with subtlety and just goes for the essential hardship that defines each character; whether it’s loosing a husband on 9/11 like Oskar’s mother (played by Sandra Bullock), or having survived the Holocaust like his grandparents.  All we get out of their character development is how each personal tragedy shaped them, and this carries little resonance as there is nothing else remotely interesting about each character.  To the movie, the personal tragedies are all that matter and that makes the movie feel especially exploitative.  It’s as if the movie doesn’t want anyone to know anything more about the movie other than it touches on these important issues, because it certainly doesn’t have worthwhile characters.  If you look at other movies that tackled serious issues, they always managed to find a way to ground their narrative with a deeply relatable story.  But, when everyone has baggage, then the narrative comes across as false and unrelatable.  Not everyone in New York has a deep connection to the many plights that has befallen society; and yet Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to believe that all of these people are so easily accessible in one neighborhood.

Compare the way the movie deals with something like the Holocaust.  The worst tragedy of the 20th century is merely represented here through the presence of Oskar’s grandparents, who seem so disconnected from their past experience.  The Holocaust is merely just an extra bit of character detail here; never fully explored and yet always reinforced on us the audience.  If the movie really wanted to give more importance to how the Holocaust could fit in their narrative, they could have included a moment when one of the grandparents sits down with Oskar and helps him learn how to move beyond the pain of loss endured through such an ordeal and find positivity again.  But, no, we only get the information that both grandparents are Holocaust survivors and that this is enough to give the movie the extra weight of importance.  It doesn’t help that one of the grandparents is a mute, which is never really given a full explanation as to why.  You would assume the tragedy of the Holocaust would’ve done that, but the movie seems less interested in connecting the dots.  To be fair, Max von Sydow’s performance as Oskar’s mute grandfather is the one redeeming aspect of the movie.  The film doesn’t do a good job of explaining the real truth behind the character, but Sydow is able to communicate so much through his simple gestures and expressions, which helps to give some element of authenticity to this film that severely lacks it.  He received the movie’s only other Oscar nomination, and lost out to fellow octogenarian acting legend Christopher Plummer that year.  But, Max von Sydow’s long and storied career gave him the ability to find the humanity in this character and make him more than just a archetype, which is sadly not the case with everyone else in the movie.   If there was ever an event where the personal story mattered with regards to the characters, it would be the Holocaust where the outpouring of personal accounts in the wake of Schindler’s List (1993) made such an impact in defining that period of time in human history.  Here in this film, it’s just there to get attention, and that makes it feel very wrong and misused.

But, the movie’s biggest problem is with the little, walking talking plot device that is Oskar.  He is where the movie focuses all the Oscar Bait formula into and creates perhaps one of the most insufferable characters to have appeared in a movie perhaps ever.  Oskar, a twelve year old boy with mental abnormalities, must learn to let go of the pain he has felt since the loss of his father on 9/11, and in the meantime, reconnect with the estranged Holocaust-surviving grandfather that he barely knows.  The movie deposits a treasure hunt for him to complete, that his father had set up before his death, and the movie uses this narrative structure to take us through the aforementioned greatest hits of every Oscar baiting subject known to man.  It doesn’t help the fact that Oskar himself is not only not very interesting, but he is also incredibly annoying.  I don’t want to blame this on the young actor, Thomas Horn, who plays Oskar, because it’s not his fault the character is terribly written and poorly conceived.  But the film rests so much on him to carry the film, and it does so by making him talk a whole lot.  The movie also fails in portraying his mental state in any meaningful way, because it never really commits to it either.  The movie heavily implies that he has Aspergers Syndrome, but it never commits to it, and in some instances, portrays his disability as a quirky aspect of his character.  Never once does the movie address the daily hardships that most people with the disorder must overcome to live a normal life, and again like everything else, just merely uses it as another element in the story to inflate it’s own sense of importance.  This is the most often exploited Oscar bait tactic for many movies, and you can fill a whole library with all the movies that failed hard in an attempt to dramatize a persons disorder.  It feels even more egregious here because it’s the mental disorder that fuels the character of Oskar, and makes him feel less genuine as a person.  You never want to tell someone like this to shut up in real life, but this movie really grinds your nerves and it pushes Oskar so heavily to the forefront.  And in doing so, it takes this movie from forgettable Oscar Bait garbage, to irredeemable and notorious Oscar Bait garbage.

I cannot stress enough how infuriating this movie is to sit through.  It’s always clear what the movie’s intentions are, and it’s cynical ploy to grab the Academy Awards attention is frankly offensive when you see the things it’s exploiting to get there.  The movie is not content to take on one issue, it wants to do all of them; perhaps banking on the odds of quantity over quality.  We get our Holocaust backstory, and the mental illness angle, and this movie carries the notorious reputation of adding the tragedy of 9/11 to the checklist of things Hollywood can exploit for awards fare.  The fact that this movie uses them is not the problematic part; it’s the fact that it uses them without care.  The Holocaust and 9/11 are just tools for this movie, completely devoid of any really exploration and just there to remind the audience of how awful the world is.  When a movie addresses an important issue, it must come with a story that transcends it’s placement in that moment and helps to personalize it for all audiences to understand it’s importance.  Schindler’s List brought many harrowing stories to the forefront, but centered it around an interesting character study of a man who saved lives by exploiting a system to his advantage.  Rain Man (1988) brought a portrayal of living with a mental disorder to life, but framed it within a story of two estranged brothers reconnecting on a road trip.  The best way that these elements can work in a movie is if the film never intends to do anything else than shed light on these important issues.  That was clearly Spielberg’s intention with Schindler’s, and he’ll tell you that the proudest outcome of that movie was seeing the floodgates open with numerous survivor’s stories after the movie came out.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t care about any of it’s issues; it’s a fabricated gift bag to the Academy hoping to get attention in the most desperate of ways.  The fact that the Academy almost fell for it is a pretty sad statement, and it shows just how easily the body can be manipulated.  Everything you hate about Oscar Bait movies can be found in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that’s what makes it one of the most insufferable and at times most offensive movies to ever get this close to Oscar glory.

Top Ten Movies of 2018

Now that the year is behind us, we can finally take a look at the state of Hollywood that made up 2018.  It was more than anything a year where the movie industry was in flux.  The old way of doing things had to be reconsidered because this was the year that streaming video came into it’s own.  Already having made big waves in television, Netflix wanted to prove this year that they could compete with the cineplex as well, and they made their statement with several original films from some of the industry’s most respected artists.  Movies like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box all premiered directly on the streaming platform to significant buzz that they might not have otherwise gotten had they started off on the big screen.  The big push by Netflix did not come without push-back from some of the industry.  The Cannes Film Festival made the controversial choice to bar Netflix movies from competition, which might have cost a sure fire contender like Roma from winning the coveted Palm d’Or.  There was also the controversial comment from Steven Spielberg that he believed Netflix originals shouldn’t be counted as equal to a theatrical release, because they premiere on home video, making them what he considers to be a made-for-TV movie.  The primary reason that Netflix is having the pull within the industry that they do now is because they are the ones taking risks and allowing filmmakers to make the movies they want to make, and are not beholden to things like franchises and box office appeal.  That’s why you’re seeing this reshuffling of the old studio alignments, with the Disney/Fox merger being the biggest move yet.  They are witnessing the birth of a new Hollywood, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the years ahead.

But for now, it’s time to run down my picks for the Top Ten and Bottom 5 for the year of 2018.  I saw nearly 100 movies this year, but there were some I managed to miss.  Even still, every one on this list is one I watched in a theater or on streaming and within the calendar year, all according to my yearly guidelines.  There were a few that nearly made my list but were left out (in no particular order): Black Panther, A Star is Born, Isle of Dogs, Love Simon, You Were Never Really There, Ready Player One, Deadpool 2, American Animals, Incredibles 2, Teen Titans Go to The Movies, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Alpha, The Sisters Brothers, The Hate U Give, First Man, Boy Erased, Widows, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Blackkklansman. All fine movies worth checking out on their own, but I had to narrow it down to ten.  So, without further ado, here are my picks for the Top Ten Movies of 2018.

10.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Who would have thought that the best animated movie of the year didn’t come from either Disney or Pixar, despite two solid efforts from both (Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet)?  And from all people, Sony Animation.  That just happened to be the case with Into the Spider-Verse, a wildly inventive and unexpected treasure to have come to a theater near you this year.  In a growing monotonous industry like animation, where all the films are starting to become indistinguishable from one another, Spider-Verse stood out the most because it felt like something completely new.  Though still animated through a computer, the movie applied this art style that made it look like it was hand drawn, just like a comic book come to life, and it works perfectly for the story being told.  In between all of the typical comic book action moments, there are images of just absolute beauty put on the screen.  One stand out moment is when main protagonist Miles Morales takes his first leap off a building in his Spider Suit, and the point of view flips upside down, making him look like he is soaring upward even though he is falling to the city below.  The movie is also consistently funny, and has some genuine heart to it.  Every iteration of Spider-Man that we come across in the movie gets just enough screen-time to stand out (I especially loved Nicolas Cages Spider-Man Noir), but the movie triumphs most in it’s portrayal of Miles Morales, making him a worthy addition to the Spider-Man pantheon.  This movie easily fits alongside the best Spider-Man films and even sets the bar high for any future animated comic movies that will follow in it’s wake.  I love Disney and Pixar, but it is great to see one of the upstarts finally make a movie that can stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and maybe even surpass them at their own game.

9.

MID 90’S

Directed by Jonah Hill

2018 was also a banner year for entertainers making their debut behind the camera.  Bradley Cooper delivered an awards season favorite with his update of A Star is Born, working as director and co-starring alongside Lady Gaga in a breakout role.  John Krasinski delivered an instant horror classic with his inventive A Quiet Place, which he costarred in with his real life spouse Emily Blunt.  There was also critical darling Eighth Grade, made by comedian Bo Burnham.  But, I felt that the best feature directing debut from an already established performer came from comedic actor Jonah Hill.  His labor of love, Mid 90’s, had a little something more than the other movies I mentioned in that it showed a sense of style.  The other movies, except maybe Quiet Place, rose on the strength of their narratives while not really breaking new ground cinematically.  Jonah Hill on the other hand had an engaging narrative (taken largely from his own experiences growing up in LA) and he mixed it in with a unique cinematic voice that feels different from everything else.  The movie has a well-rounded cast of mostly first time actors, and each one feels genuine to the time period in which they are living in; the titular mid 90’s.  The movie has this overall home movie like quality to it, no doubt inspired by the skateboarding demo tapes that circulated around this time, and it felt like a movie made by someone who really understood that the way he shot the movie really needed to reflect the culture that he was trying to recreate.  It’s just great to see a movie that defines the 90’s without relying on obvious shout outs to the pop culture in general.  If Jonah Hill directs any more films in the future I look forward to them, because this movie proved to me that he has an interesting voice of his own.

8.

THE FAVOURITE

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

What a difference a couple of years makes?  In 2016, I included director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster among my worst movies of the year list; a pick I still stand by because the movie’s dry, pretentious style grated too much on me.  Maybe it was just a matter of the script, because his new film, The Favourite retains the same dry, pretentious film-making style, but it is so much more effectively used here.  The Favourite is not your average costume drama.  It is dark, weird, and shocking in all the best ways.  The movie really shines, however, with it’s three leading ladies, all delivering the movie’s most outlandish moments with complete sincerity and noble refinement.  Playing out like All About Eve (1950) in corsets, the movie has some of the most entertaining battle of wits and savage quips you’ll ever see.  Emma Stone surprisingly masters an English accent in this movie, and it’s a delight to watch her character sneak her way up the ladder; pretending to be the good girl while masking the schemer underneath.  Rachel Weisz also has this special ability in the movie to present so much hatred in her voice without breaking her pleasant demeanor, and it makes her showdowns with Emma Stone some of the most harrowing moments put on screen this year.  Olivia Colman all but steals the movie with her eccentric performance as Queen Anne, a role that in other hands could have dipped too far into the farcical, but feels fully rounded through her.  And to Lanthimos’s credit, it is a beautifully made film too, making great use of the English manor interiors, all while maintaining the director’s twisted sensibilities with wide-angle fish lens shots used to great effect.  I love a good period drama, but it’s always nice to see one that takes a far more bizarre route, and I’m happy to see that it helped me change my mind about one particular filmmaker.

7.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

Directed by Morgan Neville

Given the state of the world, where people have become more divided, and even more troubling have grown less empathetic towards one another, we needed a reminder of common human decency more than ever this year.  That’s what this wonderful documentary about the life of Fred Rogers did, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.  It was easily the best documentary in a year full of excellent ones across the board.  Like many people my age, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on my local PBS station, and it’s amazing to think of the kind of impact that little, unassuming show had on so many lives.  The documentary delves very deeply into the history of the program, but even more importantly, it paints a portrait of the remarkable person that Mr. Rogers was.  We learn exactly why he made this program and what it reflected about him.  It becomes very clear throughout the film that he became a necessary voice in American culture, not only as a teacher to all the youth throughout the years, but as a key voice of reason during turbulent times.  We see how a simple act of washing his feet in the same pool as his African-American co-star became a profound statement against for civil rights.  We see the remarkable way he makes the youngest person feel special by not talking down to them and treating them like an equal.  And most importantly, we watch the ways in which he could console a wounded nation through a turbulent time.  This movie reminds us that we need more people like Fred Rogers today, and it’s a beautiful document that reminds us that things can be better if we all lived by his example and just show unconditional kindness in our everyday lives.  It was great to be back in his neighborhood once again.

6.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Directed by Barry Jenkins

A couple years after his surprising (and unforgettable) Oscar win for Best Picture with his directorial debut, Moonlight (2016), Barry Jenkins returns with his second feature, based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by James Baldwin.  And the result proves that Jenkins is not a one-hit wonder.  If Beale Street Could Talk is a wonderful, poetic portrait of young love in the African-American community, and through his tender approach to the material, Barry Jenkins manages to tell a tale about so much in our society through his characters own personal story.  The young couple are wonderfully realized by relative newcomers Stephan James and Kiki Layne, and their chemistry fuels much of the movie’s drama.  They are nearly overshadowed, however, by the stellar supporting cast, which includes Colman Domingo and Regina King (in an Oscar worthy performance) as two of the parents of the young woman at the center, as well as quick but worthwhile cameos from the likes of Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, and even Dave Franco.  But, even more important is the way it beautifully adapts the novel, while at the same time finding the best way to make the moments feel theatrical.  Jenkins’ use of slow-motion, which also played a big part in Moonlight as well, is used to stunning effect here and the movie is overall a beauty to look at.  And then there is the beautiful jazz and soul infused soundtrack, which will stay in your head long after seeing the movie.  It took a long time for this book to get the adaptation it deserved, and it’s great to see someone like Barry Jenkins not rest on his laurels after getting the industry’s top award but instead push himself even more as an artist; one that I hope still has plenty of wonderful films still up his sleeve going forward.

5.

PADDINGTON 2

Directed by Paul King

You know that your movie is good when it can still make an end of the year Top Ten list, even when it was released only a week after I made last year’s Top Ten list back in January 2018.  Proof that a G-Rated movie doesn’t have to be just for children, Paddington 2 has something to please just about everyone.  The first Paddington (2015) was a delightful film in it’s own right, but this sequel goes one step beyond and creates one of the most consistently charming and delightful movies of the entire year.  All the character arcs are fully rounded out, jokes land with laser like precision, and every little moment offers one surprise after another.  It helps that such love and care was put into this movie by the filmmakers, taking the beloved British literary icon and bringing him to life perfectly.  Paddington himself is wonderfully realized in both his animation, and the tenderly delivered vocal performance from Ben Whishaw.  The supporting cast of returning and new characters are also all excellent here, but there are two standouts that really make this a memorable experience.  One is Brendan Gleeson as a hardened criminal named Knuckles McGinty, whose heart is naturally softened by film’s end.  And then there is Hugh Grant as the over the top villain in one of the most delightfully eccentric performances that I’ve seen all year, and a revelation for the actor as well.  His mid-credits song and dance number may be one of the best single moments I’ve seen on the big screen in a long while.  Trust me, this movie is as sweet as a marmalade sandwich and will melt even the most cynical of hearts out there.  That’s what helps to make it one of the year’s best.

4.

ANNIHILATION

Directed by Alex Garland

Alex Garland already made a name for himself with his ground-breaking sic-fi directorial debut Ex Machina (2015).  Now, with a significantly larger scope to work with, he delivers a remarkable sophomore effort that is not just as mind blowing as it’s predecessor, but in many ways surpasses it.  The movie created one of the most original sci-fi concepts to date, the enigmatic entity known as “The Shimmer,” where everything within it’s boundaries evolves at a heightened rate.  This leads to some really strange, and unpredictable perils along the way, including what may be the most frightening, nightmare-inducing bear ever put on screen.  The best thing about the movie was that I never knew exactly where it was going to go, which is refreshing to see in a movie from this genre.  By the time we finally reach the source of the “Shimmer” I was fully intrigued and the movie thankfully does not disappoint once it gets to the final reveal.  Alex Garland shows that he has really mastered the craft of story-telling, and his voice within the science fiction genre is one that is offering up some really intriguing and new ideas.  The movie sadly was thrown into theaters with little publicity, mainly due to a creative dispute with the producers (one of whom apparently wanted to sabotage the movie’s release).  It not only should get more attention as a unique cinematic experience, but also because it’s a perfect example of how to make an action film with a diverse, female driven cast work.  I hope that other filmmakers looking to broaden diversity in their own films look at Annihilation as a template for how to do it right.  Even apart from that, it is a unforgettable experience worth seeing and a shining example of the genre it represents.

3.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

It was a good year to be Marvel.  They managed to deliver the year’s top two highest grossing movies, this and Black Panther, with the latter also generating something that has alluded Marvel up to now; Awards contention.  Though I do admire Black Panther immensely as a cultural touchstone and a breakthrough for African-American film-making, I felt that it didn’t hold up as a cinematic experience as well as Marvel’s other big film; Infinity War.  But, hey, T’Challa and his kingdom of Wakanda had a major role to play in the story-line of Infinity War as well, so they’re still getting some recognition here.  Infinity War makes the list purely because it gave me something that few other films managed to this year; an experience that I will never forget.  It is Marvel firing on all cylinders, taking all the things they have learned and refined over the years and using them to their fullest.  The movie doesn’t let up from beginning to end, and remarkably every single beloved Marvel character gets their moment to shine.  I can point to a dozen or more moments that rank among my very favorites, but it’s the final minutes that lead to the most shocking of cliffhangers that will be something that sticks with me for years to come.  It was surreal sitting in an IMAX theater with hundreds of rabid Marvel fans watching that scene play out; some even brought to tears.  Apart from that, the movie will also be remembered for it’s perfect realization of the villain; Thanos.  After being built up for so many years, he did not disappoint, and it’s largely due to the incredible performance of Josh Brolin in the role.  It’s amazing that a movie can work this well with only half the story told so far, and that’s a testament to how much Marvel has perfected their formula.  Endgame is only months away, but even without it, Infinity War will still stand as a crowning achievement for this Hollywood titan.

2.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

Directed by Boots Riley

Not in a million years could you have ever predicted where the plot of this satirical comedy would go by the end.  Marking the directorial debut of hip hop legend Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You tackles everything from corporate greed, to race relations, to labor disputes, to even the way people speak to one another, and it’s all done in this refreshing, take-no-prisoners critique on society.  The movie clearly reflects director Boots Riley’s sometimes controversial communist political beliefs, but even if you don’t agree with every part of his message, you can still appreciate the clever and creative way that he delivers it here.  I especially love the hyper-reality world that he’s created, where weird things can arise out of seemingly normal situations.  There’s a brilliant visual concept where the main character (a terrific Lakeith Stanfield in a breakout role) makes a phone call during his job as a telemarketer, and his work station is literally dropped right into the call recipient’s living room as he’s talking to them.  It’s clever ideas like that that populate the entire film.  The movie will also become notable for defining the idea of the “white voice,” which is made all the more brilliant when those “voices” that the characters channel are played by the likes of Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Lily James.  There were plenty of strong movies this year that tackled race relations and the African-American struggle in society, including movies as diverse as The Hate U Give and Blackkklansman.  But out of all those, Sorry to Bother You had the most bite, and that’s why it made for one of the year’s most interesting and rewarding film experiences.  And also for just being one of the most original, and weird films this year too.

And the best movie of 2018 is…

1.

ROMA

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Makes sense given the statement that Netflix wanted to make this year that they would also be responsible for the year’s best film.  Sadly, most studios wouldn’t bother putting up the money to make a personal, 2/12 hour semi-autobiographical film shot in black and white, so it’s to Netflix’s credit that they did.  The trade off is that most people are not going to be able to see the movie the way it was intended to be seen, which is on the big screen.  I was fortunate enough to have a theater here in Los Angeles where it was screening, and boy was it worth paying extra to see it in that format.  Alfonso Cuaron, who also made my favorite movie of 2013 (Gravity) has created another masterpiece with Roma.  This is one of the purest, most enchanting cinematic experience I’ve had in years, and it utilizes all the best elements that the director has perfected over the years.  Feeling both intimate and epic at the same time, Cuaron draws from his own upbringing in suburban Mexico City to portray a year in the life of a middle class family and the maid who takes care of them.  The maid named Cleo, played devastatingly well by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, has the most harrowing arc, as we follow the ups and downs of her life, from heartbreak to pregnancy to tragedy to a brighter future.  And the movie has all the typical, boundary pushing cinematic tricks that you’d expect from a Cuaron film, including his trademark long takes (two of which are mind-boggling when you think about how they were staged).  Every shot has some hidden gem worth discovering, like those perfectly time plane flyovers in the background.  But his best act as a filmmaker is in just setting the camera in the center of a room and letting moments play out, creating this incredible sense of intimacy.  Because it’s already on Netflix now, you should easily be able to watch it at any time, but it was even better as a theatrical experience, and far and away the best movie I saw this year.

And now with the best out of the way, it’s time to complain about the worst of the year.  Keep in mind, I usually avoid bad movies in the theater, but even still, these snuck up on me and left a bad taste in my mouth.  So, here are the bottom 5 of 2018.

5. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX – Netflix may have been responsible for the year’s best movie, but it also had it’s fair share of stinkers too.  The most notable thing about this one was the fact that Netflix released it as a surprise with no advance publicity, with only a trailer during the Super Bowl saying that it would be available that same night to give us warning.  A cool stunt, but sadly the movie was not deserving of it.  A tired retread of cliches from better movies like Alien and Event Horizon, this instantly became the weakest in Bad Robot’s stealth Cloverfield franchise, which had largely up to this point steered clear of convention.  This, it’s most “Hollywood” film to date, casts serious doubt on the franchise’s viability for the future.

4. THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS – It seems like Disney has at least one of these every year; an overproduced, hyper-stylized and narratively weak re-telling of a beloved fairy tale.  At the very least, this one wasn’t as disgracing the memory of a beloved animated classic (unless you count the unnecessary Fantasia reference) like Maleficent or Beauty and the Beast, but it was still a slog to sit through because it offers nothing in the way of interesting characters or an imaginative storyline.  It doesn’t even follow the original story of the nutcracker, instead using it’s characters and setting as a means to tell it’s unoriginal narrative.  Go and watch the ballet instead anywhere you can, because this is one nut not worth cracking.

3. HOLMES & WATSON – Yep, we can’t even escape bad movies at the end of the year either.  Easily the worst thing that both Will Farrell and John C. Reilly have ever acted in, let alone together, Holmes & Watson is one of the laziest comedies that I have seen in recent memory.  The chemistry that they showed together in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers is absent here, and the movie relies too heavily on anachronistic jokes that never work as well as the script thinks they should.  Only a couple mild chuckles come out of the heap of gags that land with a thud, especially the ones that you see coming a mile away.  Reilly did enough good movies this year that lead you to believe he’ll survive this disaster, but now might be the point to start worrying about where Farrell goes from here.

2. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – You know how Yorgo Lanthimos went from my bottom 5 in 2016 to my top 10 of 2018 in a surprising turn-around? Well the opposite is true for director J. A. Boyena, who went from directing my favorite film of 2016 (A Monster Calls) to making this steaming pile of garbage.   Although, I put less of the blame on him and more on the studio who decided to franchise build on this long running series with some of the dumbest ideas I have seen in a big budget film in a long time.  Not only do they undercut everything that was great about films past by destroying the island from the first movie, but then they take the plot to this convoluted setting in a mansion which somehow had a network of dinosaur cages built underneath it without the old man who lived above it knowing it was there.  Couple this with some incredibly dumb plot twists involving cloning, and you’ve got the year’s most brain dead movie.  Even the charisma of Chris Pratt couldn’t save this one.

And the worst movie of 2018 is…

1. 15:17 TO PARIS – Far and away the worst thing that Clint Eastwood has ever had his name attached to.  I even hesitate to call this a movie.  It plays out more like someone’s vacation video, with the central thwarted terrorist attack that inspired the movie making up only the last ten minutes or so.  Not to take away from the bravery of the three heroes from that day, but Eastwood made the worst possible choice of casting the real life people as themselves in this movie, and their lack of acting experience really shows.  The amateurish nature of the movie is really uncomfortable to watch, especially knowing that a legend like Eastwood is the one behind the camera.  I know he’s comfortable with these pulled from the headline narratives right now, but this movie is so lightweight that it really is a waste of his talent and also everyone’s time.  Thank god he made another, far superior film called The Mule this year to help get the bitter taste of this one out, but even still, Clint should’ve rethought his film-making instincts and not embarrassed himself with this, the worst movie he has ever made.

So, there you have my picks of the best and worst of the year.  It was a year of ups and downs, both on screen and off, and more than anything, it was a year that challenged norms within the industry.  We are starting to see more diverse voices coming into their own, and as you can see from my list above, they offered up some of the year’s best movies.  Though they missed making it on my list, I was pleased to see the modest success of queer themed films in 2018 like Love, Simon and Boy Erased, showing a growing mainstream acceptance in the public at large.  Also, it’s refreshing to see that in the same year that Black Panther made history at the box office that many other films tackling the African-American experience in America have also been given the spotlight as well.  And, even though this year marked the rise of platforms like Netflix, it’s also a year where many of the awards season favorites are films made directly by major studios; A Star is Born (Warner Brothers), Green Book (Universal), Mary Poppins Returns (Disney) and Black Panther (Marvel), showing that the studios are still doing just fine even with the competition.  I hope that the Academy doesn’t harbor the same kind of resentment towards Netflix movies that Cannes or several other film festivals had, because it would be a shame to overlook a film as transcendent as Roma at this year’s Oscars.  Netflix is doing what it can to meet their standards, including breaking from their own business model by giving some films a limited theatrical release (which I highly recommend if Roma is playing in your local area).  It will remain to be seen if the plan works, and if it leaves a lasting impact on either party.  Personally, I’d rather watch movies for the first time in a theater, but I admire the fact that Netflix is investing in movies that the other studios are two uncertain about making, which I think is good all around for competition.  It’s going to make for an interesting 2019, and my hope is that there will be plenty more great films to choose from for next year’s list.  With all that said, Happy New Year and thanks for reading.